BioEngineering: A World Without Cancer

Is a disease free world really possible? And how might that affect business?

According to the US National Cancer Institute, around 40 per cent of adults will be diagnosed with cancer. Today, it’s incredibly rare not to be related to, or know of somebody suffering with the disease. However, for many, the war on cancer is only just beginning. Speaking at the World’s Fair Nano in Brooklyn, New York, pharmaceutical and biotechnology expert RJ Kirk made the rather bold claim that most cancers would be curable within the next decade. Not only this, he predicted ‘complete cures for most autoimmune diseases’ within just a few years. Although it’s easy to dismiss this astoundingly optimistic conclusion, bioengineering has taken huge steps in the treatment of disease. Regardless of whether or not RJ Kirk is right, it’s worth asking what happens next. What would a world without cancer look like, and how will it impact healthcare and humanity?

Conquering cancer
The concept of using bacteria to target cancer cells was first discussed in the late 19th century, but scientists lacked the technology to turn theory into practice. Today, thanks to the development of synthetic biology, it’s a completely different story. In the 1970s, geneticist Waclaw Szybalski described synthetic biology as the construction and evaluation of new gene arrangements. Since then, gene editing techniques have become increasingly sophisticated. Last July, for instance, a paper published in the scientific journal Nature revealed that cancer could be treated using programmed bacteria. The modified bacteria invaded cancerous tumours in mice to kill the cells before self destructing. The tumours shrank for 18 days before they began to regrow. Despite limited success, the journal represents yet another important experiment that, given time, could feasibly lead to a cure for cancer. Until these experiments have been perfected, human trials are a distant goal. . . but not so distant, it seems, given the right method.

The most advanced gene editing technique of all time, CRISPR, has already been used to test edited immune cells in human lung cancer sufferers. Results are yet to be released, but show that the fight against cancer has been taken to the next level. As well as treating cancer cells, medical researchers have found more effective ways to detect the disease like screening. With increased investment (Cancer Research UK raised £647m over the past year), these developments are likely to become more frequent and more successful.

Disrupting healthcare & humanity
Curing cancer is obviously a good thing.  If cancer is reduced significantly then people will live longer, and this invariably means an older population. As well as reducing death rates, this would invariably expand the lucrative ‘grey (or silver) pound’ markets further. So businesses that make products for older customers are also bound to benefit if these customers live for longer.

However, as soon as you begin to discuss the end, or at least the reduction, of life threatening diseases, we return to the problem of overpopulation.  Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. How can governments meet the challenge of providing enough food, housing, and care for even more people when they already struggle today? In the long term, these issues will undoubtedly need attention.  If fewer people die as soon, there will be an increased need for longer term treatment. Pharmaceutical companies will meet with higher demand, which in turn could impact production rates and distribution. Unless alternative drugs can be created, the price of existing medicines may well rocket. Another major issue is the number of staff that will be required to facilitate a quality level of care. The healthcare industry is already notoriously understaffed – perhaps this is one of the ways that social robots will become part of everyday life. Other innovative technologies could be instrumental in responding to high demand, including digital healthcare services like online doctors, and Internet of Things connected devices to track patients’ health.

Even if it’s not within the next 10 years, bioengineering has the potential to cure at least some cancers. It’s difficult to imagine that this could happen within a matter of years, and bold claims should always be taken with a pinch of salt. At the same time, dismissing them entirely is short sighted. Research teams have made incredible progress in their ongoing battle with cancer and other major diseases.  As a top cause of global mortality, even a small amount of progress will have significant impact. If cancer can be treated more effectively, or detected at an earlier stage, fewer people will die. Healthcare institutions and related businesses need to acknowledge this and gradually prepare themselves to deliver longer term care to more patients and survivors.  Fortunately, there’s no shortage of HealthTech solutions that can be put to the test.

Do you believe that RJ Kirk is right? Will palliative care eventually become obsolete? Which other businesses or sectors could be disrupted if more diseases are curable within the next decade? Share your thoughts and opinions.